Steve had never much believed the rumors about Tony and Henry Hellrung when they'd first come out, mostly he'd thought it was a rotten way to tear down a decent man when he was already going through a rough time. It was a little different now, but back then the rumor that an actor was gay could ruin his shot at stardom, but Henry had managed to ruin that all on his own without the rumors. Henry played Tony on TV, or he had, back when the Avengers were first formed and everyone - Steve included - had thought that 'Mr. Stark' and 'Iron Man' were two different people, Tony had licensed all sorts of things with their images and Steve still got a check every once and a while for DVD sales for those old shows.
So no, even the occasional tabloid image of Tony and Henry staggering into - or out of - a hotel together had only raised his eyebrows a bit. That was back when Tony had been in his - as he later called it - 'high functioning alcoholic' phase, before things had gotten really bad.
That didn't make it less strange to see the man in the flesh, an actual, real world TV star, on the Helicarrier in a neatly fitted suit, still looking enough like Tony Stark to make some of the older staff double take. Tony himself was sporting a goatee lately, but even clean-shaven the resemblance was uncanny. Steve tried to not let it rattle him, he and Tony still weren't on the best of terms, even if they were getting better at working together. It probably helped that Steve was in charge of US security and S.H.E.I.L.D. now, rather than on the Avengers proper, so they didn't run into each other as often as they might have.
"Commander Rogers?" Henry asked, hand outstretched, perfect manners.
"Mr. Hellrung," Steve answered, shaking his hand and gesturing for him to follow to Steve's office. "I must say it's a bit surreal."
"For me, too," Henry answered. "Cam and I were friends for years, but you look a lot like him, or he looks like you, I guess." Cam, Cameron Michaels, had played Captain America in those same TV shows. "Here I am, as summoned."
The two of them sat, and Steve didn't even quite know how to begin. "I suppose the first thing I should know is: is there going to be a problem with you reporting to me? You're the head of the California Initiative, and even though I have forty-nine just like you, California is one of the largest, and it's well known that you and Tony are... close."
Henry flicked his hand, dismissing the whole question. Steve wished it was that easy. "Tony did a great job with The Order, so did Pepper. No one ever accused him of not knowing how to run a show. If you've got no problem with me, you and I have no problems, Commander. Is there a problem? I have a lot of personal loyalty to Tony, and you two don't always see eye to eye."
Steve didn't quite know how to answer. He and Tony were still raw. "No, no problem."
"If you don't mind a bit of professional advice, Commander?" Henry smiled, leaning in just enough to be friendly and inviting, rather than aggressive. "You're not a very good actor."
Steve laughed. "Sorry. I'm sorry. I step into this position after Osborn gets forcibly ejected, I get to put everything back in order, I come back with nothing but questions for Tony, and he doesn't even remember." Tony and his damn... emergency backup brain, made only just after he'd done that Extremis treatment to himself, nothing from the Superhero Registration, nothing from Osborn's superhero reign of terror, and no answers for Steve, no closure between him and his friend.
Henry didn't answer for a long minute, shifting in his chair, leaning forward, then relaxing back. On another man it might have looked like nerves, but Henry made it look contemplative. "Back when I first met Tony, no one knew he was Iron Man. He was just 'Mr. Stark', the eccentric billionaire who decided that dropping money into a black hole to fund superheros, of all things, was a great idea, the man who needed a bodyguard but that bodyguard spent more time fighting villains than protecting his boss. Even then I thought he was nuts.
"I think it will come as no surprise that I'm a method actor," Henry continued. "Tony and I... well I think it's well publicised that we took the method a little too far, but at the time I liked to tell myself it was to understand the man. I personally watched him, drunk off his ass, picking up some gorgeous A-List actress, on the phone with Tokyo or Shanghai or Paris, doodling some circuit design into a napkin, and still some part of him was bored. I'm not going to be one of those tools who says 'I knew it all along' about Tony being Iron Man, but it made sense. It clicked."
Steve had been following, for the most part. Tony had never been drunk off his ass in the Mansion, not like that, but Steve knew that Tony, the one who was thinking and working and flirting and socializing and yet still a little bit empty. He hadn't been as close to Tony before he found out he was Iron Man, but he'd always admired him from afar. "I remember him like that."
He wouldn't have called it that, but Henry's word made sense, so he nodded.
"I'm not a genius, Commander Rogers. I got my big break because I'm just the right kind of devilishly handsome to look like Tony Stark. I'm an actor. I majored in English Lit, and now I have an MBA and I'm running a superhero squad and AA meetings by turns. Tony has a half-dozen doctorates, he sometimes forgets to eat, and he has been engineering the future since before he was old enough to shave. As an actor you don't get to say 'hell if I know why he does it' and throw up your hands." Henry finally paused, really paused, and leaned back.
Steve didn't say anything, still. It took him a moment, because Henry hadn't exactly pitched it as 'my credentials for understanding Tony Stark', but that's exactly what he was giving. Steve... Steve had to admit, for all they were friends, close friends, some of the best, Steve rarely felt he understood Tony. The conflict between them probably would have felt like less of a betrayal if he'd at least understood Tony. Maybe the part that made it worst was because he still hadn't understood Tony, not even after their hour long personal truce right in the middle of it all. "So, why the hell does he do it?"
"Hell if I know." Henry laughed, and then waved his hands. "I kid, I kid. Look, why - The actual step-by-step reasons why Tony does what he does - Reed Richards, Henry Pym, they're the guys you want to ask. But why, he did it? Because he thought it was the right thing to do, because he was looking ahead to all the dominoes. We've got a trained superhero team in every state with a mix of old guard and highly trained newbies, they're accountable, they're publicly visible, they're heroes. We're self-sustaining now, too, even with Osborn trying to screw the pooch. We don't need SHRA anymore, we just say 'I'm a superhero and you can too!' and they're lining up. Look, you hate it, I know you do, 'ends justify the means', but remember: Stark Industries was green before it was cool; had family leave, paternity leave, and health care for civil partners before it was cool; the daycare on the Helicarrier was Stark; S.H.I.E.L.D. employee satisfaction was through the roof, expenditures down, terror down... This isn't Mussolini where at least the trains ran on time, he knows how these things fit together."
Steve laughed, he did, because the smirk on Henry's face said that he knew exactly who he was talking to and exactly where the mark would hit. "You know, the trains really didn't run on time."
Henry's face sobered after that. "Look... I'm sure it was hard for you, feeling like your friend stab you in the back. He did, he stabbed you in the back, and he went on television a few dozen times looking like he was happy enough to do it. Tony Stark is a better actor than you, Commander."
Henry was surprisingly unaggressive when he said it, no yelling, no firm command, just a statement, like they were just two men having a conversation about weather or sports teams or nothing else fraught. Steve could easily have imagined it as an attack, but Henry was entirely friendly. That didn't mean Steve was buying it for a second.
"And you know this because, why? Because he broke down on national television after I died?" Steve wanted it to be enough, but even when he was feeling gracious it sometimes felt like too little, too late.
"Because I got the phone calls, after he came out in support, after Happy died, after you died, every time he hit a hard bump in the road as Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. Hell, he practically had to bring me into the Initiative just to make sure I could have the clearance to hear what he needed to say." Henry leaned back in his chair, sighed. "Tony... I'd like to think he would have said this to your face, circumstances permitting. Anyone could to tell you that your death hit him very hard. And with the swiss cheese he turned his brain into to fight Osborn, I'm one of the people he calls when he wonders where the hell the last years of his life went."
Steve hung his head, enough to scratch his fingers through his hair while he tried to let everything sink in. "It... Tony was wrong." Even now he couldn't quite let that go. "If you don't do it the right way..." He then realized how horribly unfair it was to take that out on Henry; Henry was an Initiative poster boy, an accountability poster boy, a maker of hard decisions for his own team, modeled in a lot of ways after the Avengers themselves. "I'm sorry. It's over anyway."
"And here you are, Top Cop." That had a bit of a bite to it. There weren't a lot of people who had the guts to go to bat for Tony Stark with Steve right now, especially since his and Tony's personal relationship was still rocky, and their tentative truce was hardly public. Even the Avengers did their best to stay between them without taking sides. "On this, I'm Tony Stark's man, through and through."
It shouldn't have made him wonder, it shouldn't, but Steve found himself arching an eyebrow without even meaning to, coughing uncomfortably at the thought of Henry and Tony, tangled together somewhere, buzzed and enjoying life... Henry caught it, he was an actor, after all, it was his job to observe and duplicate the nuances of human expression.
"Not like that!" He laughed. "Although, damn, can't say I wasn't tempted. Is it narcissistic if I say he's a good looking man?"
"Sorry. I know they're tabloids..." Steve shook his head, not even sure why he was giving those rumors any more breath than they'd already had. "We don't have a problem. I'm sure there are a few other agents on the Helicarrier who are Tony Stark's men, even if they aren't prepared to say that to my face. The Initiative was popular, and... we could probably use a few corporate morale boosting exercises after shaking off Osborn."
"Well then." Henry spread his arms, all showman, all invitation to draw a comparison to Tony. "What is there to say about The Order? I wrote a memo."
It went fairly well from there.
Steve wasn't sure what possessed him to head to the Avengers Tower that evening. Part of him was probably motivated by the urge to see Bucky, but he'd have to admit he'd have better luck at Bucky's apartment, not by dropping into the Tower. Bucky wasn't even there. Tony and Henry were, smiling over coffee, Tony sprawled easily against a kitchen counter, Henry almost matching his posture against the island. Even seeing them together it was hard to tell them apart at first glance - Tony had that electromagnet in his chest, gleaming, and the goatee, but their lines, their suits, everything else about them was almost twin.
Tony noticed him a few moments later, face going bright, and then guarded, before he finally hid behind a sip of coffee. "I suddenly realize how unfair it is he missed decades of Doublemint Gum commercials."
Henry chuckled in response, hiding it behind his own sip of coffee.
"Fate of the free world? Supervillains?"
"You have a minute?" Steve settled for asking that.
A look passed between Henry and Tony, one that spoke of long familiarity, or at least a conversation topic that had been recently plumbed and was well worn between them. It was one of those telepathic looks that spoke of them both knowing what the other was thinking. After a few seconds, Tony nodded and inclined his head in invitation to follow.
They ended up on one of the half-dozen rooms with a gorgeous view of Midtown and a reasonable amount of privacy. Tony looked out over the skyline, cradling his coffee. Steve couldn't think of what to say.
"If you're here for a S.H.I.E.L.D. consult, I should let you know, as a former Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. I have an overwhelming amount of expertise and a suitably flush rate of compensation to match." Tony smiled, and then hid it behind a cup of coffee. At least he was feeling present enough to joke about it.
"Which you don't remember," Steve reminded him.
"No. No I don't. Enh, I can extrapolate. People have been paid more to advise on less experience. There are bits and pieces with fuzzy edges, though... things slotting into place. I might have wiped the hard drive, but apparently it left the occasional echo, didn't have time to overwrite it with random ones and zeros." Tony set down his mug on a nearby table, rotating it with his fingers. "Really, Steve, we're still having that part of the breakup when my friends don't talk to your friends. What's on your mind?"
"I--" Steve didn't know. "I don't want us to be 'broken up'. I want us on the same team again. I miss-- I miss fighting at your side." Steve missed Tony, his Tony, his friend. "I'm spending my days fighting paperwork, and I still don't understand you, Tony. I never understand what goes on in your head, but... maybe I should have tried harder."
Tony looked over at him, mouth open, shocked and completely unattractive, before he shook his head, trying to clear it. "Alright, well... that's certainly a pleasant change from the Tony Stark 'I'm Sorry Party' I've been throwing. Well, Henry and I are going to light up the town - by which I mean go to that new restaurant by that Top Chef guy who knows not to try to sell us on the wine pairings and then maybe catch a show."
Steve had to remind himself that when Tony said he was 'broke', he didn't really mean 'broke', and he could more than afford a night on the town if he wanted it. Steve had been fairly worried about the financial solvency of one of his best friends - and, of course, if he was being honest, he was worried about whether or not Congress would be ready to sign an appropriation to keep the Avengers up and running or if Steve was going to have to find a chunk of the S.H.I.E.L.D. operational budget to pay for them. "Sounds like a nice date."
"Not you, too!" Tony gave Steve's shoulder a playful punch. "I thought you didn't listen to those gossip hounds."
Steve really couldn't keep his foot out of his mouth today. He decided to blame it on the fact that Tony and Henry honestly did look good together. They could have made a handsome couple...
"Besides, he turned me down ages ago. It means we get all of the deep, intimate friendship and I know he's never going to indulge my curiosity." Tony shrugged. "You'd think it would take the mystery out of it, but apparently I do better with yes and no, not will we/won't we. It explains a lot."
Tony gave a sigh that might have been wistful, and Steve wondered who Tony was thinking about just then, he was also not sure how he'd missed the fact that Tony actually might ask another man... He'd used up his insensitive question for the day, though, so he let it go, at least for the moment. They weren't friendly right now, not close enough for that sort of conversation, maybe soon.
"Tomorrow?" He asked instead.
"Sure. It's got to be lunch, though. I've got to get back to Seattle." At first he didn't think Tony thought much of the idea, he was being brusque, and not in a way that made him feel as though it was just Tony not wanting to keep Henry waiting. When Tony tilted his head back up, though, Steve saw the weight in Tony's eyes. "You still remind me of all my mistakes, Steve. The... the personal ones."
Steve caught the undercurrent, that Tony wasn't going to apologize for the argument, the war, just the consequences. "It wasn't your fault. Did anyone tell you that when I was gone?"
"I don't know," Tony admitted. "Probably."
Tony really didn't know. Steve knew that, but Steve wondered if there was anything more maddening for a man like Tony Stark than to not be certain if his justifications had been right, if they would hold up under scrutiny He'd said he would have made the same choices, but Steve was starting to wonder if that was all bravado... or maybe he was just finally allowing himself to admit, right or wrong, he'd hurt Tony just like Tony had hurt him. "Well, I don't blame you. It wasn't your fault. It was Red Skull, and if it hadn't been us it would have been something else."
It seemed to sink in, at least a little, if the smile was any indication. "But you still want me to get you a hoagie with the little meatballs and those skinny-ass fries you like."
"Yeah." Steve reached out, and Tony let himself be dragged into the hug. "I missed you, Tony."
"Me too, Steve." Tony sighed, and then punctuated it with a squeeze of his arms. "I honestly don't know how I got through it without you."
The truth of it hurt. Tony had made it through, but even on the other side he wasn't sure how. Steve let go, and Tony backed away; he watched as Tony neatened his suit slightly, smoothed down the lines and raked his fingers through his hair to get just the right amount of volume out of it. He always looked good, but today he looked like he was ready to paint the town red, just like he'd promised.
"Have a good date," he said, smirking.
Tony waved his hand, shooing him, but Steve... well he was very glad that Henry had decided to give him a piece of his mind. He was never going to get closure, real closure, whatever Tony's reasons would have been in every moment weren't there for Steve to pick over, but hearing that from another perspective, one that was ready to go to bat for Tony above all else, had certainly clarified things. It was going to have to be enough. Steve hoped it would be, to get the two of them through this.